In 2010, Irene Sabatini shot to international fame, when she won the Orange Award for New Writers for her first book, The Boy Next Door. Sabatini, who spent her childhood in the laid back city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, studied psychology at the University of Zimbabwe and then took a Masters at the Institute of Education in London. She has lived and worked in several countries: teaching in Colombia, conducting research work in Barbadian schools and writing environmental science books for Zimbabwean primary schools. She currently lives in Geneva with her husband and two sons.In November this year, she released follow-on novel, Peace and Conflict: A Boy’s Tale. She talked to Africa Book Club about how she got into writing, life after winning the Orange Award, and her most recent book.
Although you now live in Geneva, Switzerland, you actually grew up in Zimbabwe. What was your childhood like? What are your best memories?
I would say that I had several childhoods in Zimbabwe. I lived in a township until I was about eight; then we moved into what I guess you would call a low-income government housing area for ‘coloureds’ because my father was classified as ‘coloured’ and was not permitted to stay in the township, and from there, when I was about twelve, we moved into a house in what had just recently been a whites-only area. In tandem with all this, I spent the first part of my childhood in Rhodesia, a fragment of it in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and my teenage years in Zimbabwe! This is because the country moved from white minority rule to black majority rule. But I guess the main thing through all this is that my parents believed that education, with a capital E, was the greatest gift you could give your children, so they sacrificed to send me to the best school that was open to all races during Rhodesia which was the Dominican Convent. And it is there, in that environment, where my love for reading really thrived. I had one particularly wonderful teacher who brought English Literature to life and she always encouraged me with my writing; I remember that she was very upset when I made the fatal decision to do sciences for my A levels rather than English.
But as I gained and honed my English I lost something too, which was Ndebele, the language of Matabeleland which is the province in which Bulawayo is situated. I started my school days being able to speak not only Ndebele, but Nyanje which is spoken in Zambia. On one of my first days of school I remember my ear being twisted by a teacher because I had been chatting away in Nyanje to my oblivious classmate and I had not heard/understood the teacher telling me to be quiet. My parents speak about five languages between them. And when I come back home and listen to my aunts’ chatter with all the expressiveness and musicality that Ndebele has I always think, now, that’s the way to tell a story, so I really regret that my Ndebele is very scrappy.
Were you into books and reading as a child? What kind of books were you into?
I loved reading as a child. The Bulawayo Public library was my playground. I spent many hours in there lost in the world of English boarding schools and, in my teenage years, hospital nurse-doctor dramas. As you can see I gobbled up typical teenage fare but some of my favourite books came from the O-Level school reading lists like Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household which I thoroughly recommend; I recently reread it and it still gave me chills. I also loved Ring of Brightwater by Gavin Maxwell- which is about otters: can you imagine: coming from a landlocked country (and I had never left Bulawayo)- I had absolutely no idea what an otter was- but that did nothing to diminish my love for that story which is what a good story will do, carry you away on a magic carpet to another place, where you find yourself learning a new vocabulary and caring about thing that are completely outside your realm of experience; that’s really time travelling. But reading can also connect us with ourselves, in a profound way. The first time I ever read about a black character was in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and that book has a very special place in my heart because I think it gave voice to the alienation I often felt as one of the few black girls at the school; it said that my feeling/experience wasn’t peculiar- I wasn’t alone. After that I went on a Maya Angelou binge: it was the first time where I saw that a black woman could be a protagonist in her own life: she could travel, have adventures, have a multifaceted life; she could make herself.
After college, you left Zimbabwe and moved to Colombia. Why was that?
Well, I was following my heart; fortunately, it worked out well! And how could I possibly miss out on an opportunity to be in this legendary place of ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude.’ And it is in Colombia where I think I truly embarked on my writing journey.
At what point did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I don’t know if I decided at any one point. Writing is just something I did. Perhaps you could say/infer that the first time when I sent my work out ‘there’ (to agents/publishers) that was a decision to become a writer.
Who or what was your inspiration for your award-winning book, The Boy Next Door?
The Boy Next Door was inspired by a fire that happened next door to my childhood home. It was a leap of imagination from that fire. Who did it? Why? A love story? Those were the questions driving my narrative.
In what ways did winning the Orange Prize (with The Boy Next Door) change your life?
The Orange Award for New Writers did one truly beautiful thing: it gave The Boy Next Door a wider readership. Up until then the book was basically sinking without a trace. It is something really wonderful to know that your book is being read and being discussed and that people care enough about the story to write to you about it.
You recently released a new title. Tell us about it.
Peace and Conflict is set in Geneva, Switzerland and its narrator is a ten year old Zimbabwean-Italian boy who is trying to solve a mystery within the framework of his life in his Geneva which he thinks is ‘the best place in the world.’ I guess it is, in a sense, a coming of age tale.
How long did it take you to finish ‘Peace and Conflict’? Was the process easier than with your earlier book?
What the prize did not do was to make getting the second book out any easier. I had to virtually begin all over again. It took me about a year to finish the story once I got started properly. I had so much fun writing it because inspiration for this novel was just everywhere around me.
As a writer, where do you draw your best ideas?
I think I draw my best ideas from everyday life: for example, people’s conversations- people talk about all sorts of things in public spaces! I people watch. We do such amazing things with our faces, our bodies. I also take lots of walks through the city. You don’t know what you may stumble upon. And I read a lot: I think you pick up language by osmosis; you don’t really know it’s happening until you see its product in your own work.
Are there writers that inspire you? Which ones?
If I’m not writing I’m reading. I love writers who take me elsewhere and get me lost in there; writers who make me think, who shake me up. I’m not picky about genre.
For people interested in discovering great fiction from Africa, what books and authors would you recommend?
I have just finished Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic and I think that this is my Book of The Year. I would call it a philosophical novel. There is a one and a half page chapter in there which shows the effect that a black man has when he enters a white space- it is pure genius. I was awed by George Makana Clark’s The Raw Man, in both its language, story and narrative structure. For science fiction fans, Octavia E Butler’s Kindred which I really think should be a classic. It’s a terrific, chilling read.